Thursday, November 12, 2009

Boundaries and Other Bullshit

One of the things that humans do, in trying to make sense of the world, is classify things. We segregate them. This is an orange, that is a banana, the other is a weasel and over there is the moon. We group things together, too, in varying nested groupings: these are fruits, this group are citrus fruits, and this one is an orange.

This is a very useful thing to do. Life would be rather different and more difficult if we were to periodically attempt to pluck the moon to stave off scurvy. Categories are helpful. But there’s a problem that arises from this, too, and it’s the problem of boundaries.

When you place something in a category, you are placing a conceptual boundary around it. In a rough-and-ready, daily existence fashion this works. It’s a sort of mental shorthand that’s useful for general purposes. It becomes a problem, though, when those abstract boundaries are attributed significance beyond mental shorthand, and viewed as rules which the real world follows.

Take the often-misunderstood field of taxonomy, and the notion of species, for example. Now, ‘species’ is a useful classification tool, but many people get confused and the evolution-deniers come from that confusion, because they insist on rigid boundaries where there really are none, either chronological or geographical. This insistence upon rigid boundaries of distinction allows them to insist that insipid bullshit like ‘evolution says that we come from apes, but what did the first human mate with? It couldn’t have been an ape, because they’re different species!’ is actually a valid argument, rather than a categorical and undeniable display of pig-shit ignorance.

It’s backwards thinking again, this idea that conceptual distinctions used to get a handle on the real world actually dictate how the real world works. It’s magical thinking, too, a sort of postmodernist ‘my brain creates the world’ assumption which appears to rest on the notion that you can dictate reality if you think really hard at it. But I digress.

The point is that we tend to think in terms of categories, but this tendency is revealed as not-really-reflective-of-the-real-world when we examine the notion of boundaries, those borders between things. It turns out, when you examine those borders, that they aren’t really there, or at the very least they’re extremely fuzzy, and become more and more fuzzy the closer you look at them.

I’ll look at the ‘when life emerged from the oceans’ idea to illustrate. The boundary between ‘ocean’ and ‘land’ seems pretty fucking clear-cut, yeah? So we’re looking for the first animal to crawl out of the water and start sunbathing or something, or so it might first appear. Actually, that’s fucking simple-minded and stupid – so stupid, in fact, that evolution-deniers can see the stupidity of it. They choose to stick with the rigid-boundaries notion, though, and that’s where their thinking fails them. Let’s go for a walk on the beach…

First off, lets take a fairly calm day. Even on a calm day, the ocean isn’t still. There’s swell, even if slight. So if you were to arbitrarily decide that the boundary between water and sand or rock is where you draw the distinction, well, that boundary moves – constantly. And there are forms of life which actually rely on that. It’s the environmental niche in which they fit. And they are diverse, being plants and animals, and I’ll give you short fucking odds that they include a fuck-off lot of bacteria.

That’s the thing: everywhere we’ve looked on this godforsaken planet, we’ve found life. Most of it’s bacterial, but it’s undeniably life. There are species of bacteria that are uniquely suited to life behind your left ear, for example. Again, I digress.

Now, go near to the edge of the water, on the beach side of our now-acknowledged-as-shifting boundary. Start digging. It won’t be long before you hit water. The ocean and the land bleed into each other. This boundary we had in our heads has become pretty blurry…

…and that’s because, in reality, and to ‘life’, the boundary isn’t there. Not really. Life hangs about wherever it is because it can, or if something changes in an organism or its environment, that organism hangs about if it can. Now, a deep-sea quid isn’t going to climb out of the ocean and start walking around, but that’s just absurdity talking. Life is, ultimately, a massive, complicated series of chemical reactions on (at least) a planetary scale. And the boundaries that we create in our heads – those boundaries that help us to eat fruit instead of car-parts – don’t really, ultimately, reflect reality. They are conceptual boundaries, they don’t really exist as we tend to think they do.

And that, incidentally, is why creationists think abiogenesis is such a big load of bogeyman’s bollocks. According tho their conceptual boundaries, there’s a great big boundary smack-bang in the middle between life and non-life. That boundary doesn’t really exist, though, as is becoming increasingly clear.

1 comment:

Paul Almond said...

Good article. It makes me think, in particular, of how they do this with things like minds/intentionality. William Lane Craig's whole Kalam cosmological argument is based on the idea that there is a problem and only intentionality can resolve it, on account of intentionality having some special ontological status: He needs there to be a philosophical gulf between intentionality and everything else - even though neuroscience is suggesting that there isn't.